Year end wind-down: Why disconnecting and recharging helps me in all my pursuits
At the end of 2020 approaches, I enter a wind down period to recharge for the upcoming year. In this post I’ll quickly describe why this is important to me, and why it helps me be effective at my multiple pursuits.
- Why I insist on compartmentalization
- Taking a break helps us see the forest for the trees
- Freeing up memory helps us run faster
Why I insist on compartmentalization
First, let’s look at disconnecting and recharging on a micro, or daily level. I’ve been fairly firm with times I keep at my full-time work. The reason is preventative; I know that if I start going down a rabbit hole after hours, it causes a domino effect. Fatigue will lead me to build suboptimally the next day, and the day after that, e.g. hardcode solutions in code, which snowballs into costly technical debt later on.
Oftentimes it can be addictive to continue working on a problem, especially if one is in a flow state, but it is worth interrupting. Flow state while fatigued simply causes mistakes and technical debt that future me, or other teammates would have to fix. I’d rather tackle problems with a fresh mind.
Trying to ship something fast by pulling late hours is most likely due to ego-feed. I prevented this when I was building my first video game after full-time work hours, by strict time-blocking and evening time limits (using the rule of diminishing marginal returns). It helped me increase my total hours worked, but since it was so consciously dispersed, it didn’t feel like “crunch”, in terms of psychological and mental drain. I was even super fresh for every following work day, allowing me to excel at both.
It all evens out anyway, if one resorts to real crunch; after overtime there is commonly the phenonemon of “undertime” (from the book Peopleware): that overtime is “almost always followed by an equal period of compensatory undertime” while workers burn out, catch up on rest, and recover from programmer’s block or mental health erosion caused by the crunch.
It only takes a little bit of long-term thinking to see that sustained energy helps us build long-term sustainable codebases, products, and other pursuits.
Taking a break helps us see the forest for the trees
Now, on the macro level, which to me is usually a few days or a week of disconnection. I don’t schedule block times during these wind-down times, but am allowed to do things when I “feel like it”, which means I might still write a few lines of code for my hobbies, or this blog, but at a much reduced cadence and intensity (10% maximum brainpower, compared to the usual 90%).
In our day to day, when we are glued to the nitty gritty of project execution, we often can’t see the forest for the trees. Taking a step back lets us be able to see the bigger picture. A quarterly or yearly wind down period detaches us from the minute, which helps with prioritization for the subsequent period when execution resumes.
It also helps ideas marinate - I often come up with ideas for projects or ways I can improve my work, during these wind-down periods! But differently from when I try to juice my brain for ideas in the midst of nitty gritty execution, the ideas during wind-down come more like random “shower thoughts” or “inspiration strikes”, since I’ve allowed my brain to take a step back.
Freeing up memory helps us run faster
I have the habit of fully shutting down my personal computers every day. When I leave them on for multiple days, memory usage just starts to accumulate, causing them to be sluggish. Similarly, during wind-down, let’s just close all the browser tabs and reboot.
I see this wind-down period serving a similar function for my mind. Often, some lingering “urgencies” start to accumulate over a period of work. These aren’t true urgencies, but rather miscellaneous worries and tasks (e.g. freeing up time for financial planning) that built up over weeks that I didn’t address due to prioritizing full time work or other projects.
During this wind-down period, I have time to explore lingering curiosities or clear out tasks that were previously de-prioritized, but were actually consuming memory in the background. Mentally freeing up this space, helps me be faster and fresher in the upcoming year.
See also: Eugene Yan’s post on reflection of 2020
It’s my belief that years are arbitrary units of time; if you want to do something, don’t let the change of years stop you! However it is true that most of my wind-down periods are during holiday seasons at the end of year, because that’s when most people are also off. Hence, year-end does set me up for 2021.
But don’t be afraid to do this in mid-year. I believe that identifying when one needs to recharge, and adamantly protecting that recharge time, is worth it to avoid burnout, which is always extremely costly.